August 29, 2009
The barefoot summer is nearly over.
My soles are dirty, maybe permanently so; they are also thick and somewhat wiser than they were when this summer began 2,714 miles east of here.
There are certain things one learns (or doesn’t learn) when driving the highway between New York and Montana.
For instance, peanut butter and jelly every day is not as appealing as it was when I was seven.
But more importantly, as you drive the first 300 miles with red eyes and warm tears streaming down your face, you realize—for the first time in your life—that leaving the people is harder than leaving the landscape.
You learn you have a fear of running out of gas somewhere in the flatness of South Dakota, as evidenced by your neurotic habit of filling the tank when it’s somewhere between one-half and one-quarter full (which occurs at least four times a day when you’re towing a trailer).
You realize part of you hates asking or receiving help from men. It defeats you.
But it’s your father who hooked up the trailer and got you on the road.
It’s your brother-in-law who jacked up the trailer and removed it from your car because the car needed new brakes 800 miles into the trip.
It’s a mustached policeman in Illinois who saw you napping in a parking lot during a wicked thunderstorm, who went home and fetched you a can of diet Pepsi and a printout of the latest radar map.
It’s a man with a large belt buckle in the Napa Auto Parts store in Wall, South Dakota, who jerry-rigged the broken ground wire on the trailer.
You learn you still have a bit of adventurous traveler spirit packed in your bones, which may or may not be the smartest bit of your being.
For instance, when the campground in Kadoka, South Dakota, seems shuttered, deserted, rundown and located in a generally suspicious alleyway, you enter anyway because it is past sunset, and you’ve been driving for 12 hours and you need a place to sleep.
(Besides, the lion hound has been sleeping for all 12 hours, so he’s ready to stand guard for the night.)
It reeks of Deliverance, and a sign points you into a cavernous series of sheds.
A gray dog growls from beneath the skeleton of a car engine, and no one answers your hello.
Your guard dog is locked in the Subaru wagon, which, you realize, you will have to back up, with the trailer—a stunt you have not yet executed correctly—if you are to get out of this place.
You finally realize you should not spend the night in Kadoka, South Dakota, when you peek around the corner and see another line of junk cars on their blocks, and an old white and aqua-green single-wide trailer nestled under the shed roof with a sheet of cardboard jammed into the window with “Office” written in black marker.
You execute that reverse maneuver with precision.
Because you spent $500 on new brakes in Indiana and you can no longer justify staying in even a sketchy cheap motel, you drive 40 more miles, and you camp with a crew of Harley Davidson riders.
You’ve never felt safer.
You discover you can breathe in the open sky of the West.
And then you drive into two more of the fiercest summer storms you’ve ever experienced.
You marvel at how unfettered life feels once that horizon opens up into sky, pure blue sky. You marvel in particular at how you can feel this way despite the fact that your car is shackled to a trailer that bucks over bumps and keeps you moving at 60 mph while the rest of the world screams by at 80 mph.
You watch lightening fall to the ground.
You crawl over the continental divide at 40 mph.
All this, and your dog still follows you faithfully.
You wonder how this happened, how you left everything, and drove yourself onto a blank page.
It is August.
I am now a resident of Montana, unbothered by the fact that I have gone from living in my own three-bedroom house to renting a small room, that I have gone from editor to grad student with the accompanying plummet in income.
My dog, also, seems unconcerned about this. In fact, I’ve never seen him so mellow.
There’s gravel my new backyard; I walk across it barefoot every now and again, just to remind myself how tough skin can grow because some days this country makes me feel porous.
I go to Blue Mountain for a run. I take my shoes off at the river, and wade in.
My arches mold themselves across the rounded knobs of river stones in the Bitterroot. The stones press up, as though to lift me, as though I need a larger force in my body.
I don’t necessarily believe in fate, but I believe in place; and the two might, in some way, be the same thing.
It’s possible I am supposed to be here. All along, I was supposed to come here.
I am learning to walk again.
On paved sidewalks.
In beds of stone and along mountain paths of sagebrush.
I am thick skinned and bare.